Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
I am completely unqualified to write a review of anything written by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Orhan Pamuk so rather than call this a review of Istanbul: Memories of a City I’ve called it my musings on the book. I didn’t expect an easy book to read (having struggled through My Name is Red) and Pamuk’s memoirs didn’t disappoint me in that respect. I had just read The Oracle of Stamboul (you can read my review here) when I saw Pamuk’s Istanbul for sale at a 2nd hand book fair and figured that I should read it to stay in the theme. I haven’t yet been to Turkey (Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain are the closest I’ve been so far) and I am curious about how a great empire like the Ottoman Empire could come to an end and how a country like Turkey could abandon the Ottoman clothing, the Arabic alphabet, the harems, the Janissaries, the Rufai dervishes etc that so entranced westerners such as Hans Christian Anderson and Flaubert. Pamuk gives an excellent discussion of the currents that led to the ‘westernisation’ of Turkey and the mixed feelings of the people from the loss of the greatness of the empire, the dilution of the culture, the feeling that it’s either not western enough or too western (depending on the viewpoint of the Istanbullu) and the effects of the rapid changes to the once beautiful Istanbul with the enormous increases in population. Pamuk laments the lack of literary tradition in Turkey and this helps me to understand why My Name is Red is so intricate a book, I suspect that Pamuk did very careful research to create a historical novel that is true to the times and in some ways makes up for the lack of novels written at the time.
The excellent use of historical photographs, depicting decrepit mansions, poor neighbourhoods, crumbling city walls etc, throughout the book adds to the gloomy atmosphere that Pamuk loves to evoke when he talks about liking the city most in winter when everything is in shades of grey.
I love the overwhelming melancholy when I look at the walls of old apartment buildings and the dark surfaces of neglected, unpainted, fallen-down wooden mansions: only in Istanbul have I seen this texture, this shading.
Pamuk’s writing style being what it is, I repeatedly found myself wondering why I was reading this book. The monotony of his early life in his family’s apartment building was numbing and was almost enough to make me stop reading. A central theme to the book is melancholy (huzun in Turkish) and it seems that Pamuk experiences a great deal of huzun. The opening section on huzun was interesting on an intellectual level and I liked the references to Montaigne and others.
Once Pamuk goes to school, I began to enjoy the writing and chuckled at his reminiscences. The part of the book that I found most amusing was the section where Pamuk had dug through decades of Instabul newspapers to give examples of the rules and commentaries on everyday life being made by newspaper writers, e.g.:
When you see a beautiful woman in the street, don’t look at her hatefully as if you’re about to kill her and don’t exhibit excessive longing either, just give her a little smile, avert your eyes and walk on (from a newspaper in 1974).
Taking our inspiration from an article on the proper way to walk in a city that appeared recently in the celebrated Parisian magazine, Matin, we, too, should make our feelings clear to people who have yet to learn how to conduct themselves on the streets of Istanbul and tell them: Don’t walk down the street with your mouth open (from a newspaper in 1924).
This book is not a travel guide, it is a love poem to Pamuk’s native city and in particular the Bosphorous. Pamuk is startlingly frank about several aspects of his childhood and personality including:
If something got in the way of this …, if I did not quite lose myself in my painting… I’d be overcome by an urge to masturbate
Because these disasters suspend the rules of everyday life, and because, in the end, they spare ‘people like us’, I secretly (if also guiltily) enjoy them
Until the age of forty-five, it was my habit, whenever I was drifting in that sweet cloud between sleep and wakefulness, to cheer myself by imagining I was killing people.
One afternoon… when I was doing my military service, watching an entire company linger in the canteen after lunch for a chat and a smoke, I surveyed these 750 almost identical soldiers and imagined that their heads separated from their bodies: as I contemplated their bloody oesophagi through the cigarette smoke that bathed the cavernous canteen in a sweet, transparent blue haze…
I just read an article in the travel section of the Guardian that suggests that there’s no better guide to Istanbul than the memoirs of a Nobel Prize-winning author. The author then claims to follows Orhan Pamuk’s literary trail through Istanbul. Considering that Pamuk spends most of the book talking about melancholy and wagging class to wander the streets while feeling melancholic I can’t really see how the book would be a good travel guide.